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My idea of the perfect traveling computer is the zero-pound model. That is, I wouldn’t carry one at all.
This being the real world, and my life being in some considerable respect about communication and technology, I carry around a number of items. They are wonderfully capable compared with what I used to cram into a carry-on bag but they are not weightless.
Road warriors like me are always on the lookout for gear that has three attributes: powerful, tiny and durable.
Typically, we’ve had to pick two. But the ingenuity of technology people is a constant joy to observe. It is also a constant drain on my bank account. But never mind that.
So what are the key items in my travel kit? One is entirely analogue, but utterly essential: a paperback book. The modern world makes us wait in lots of queues and there is nothing better to do with the time than catch up on one’s reading.
In the category of ultra-portable, ultra-useful and tech-related, I would start with several cables. In this case the cables are retractable, winding around spring-loaded reels for easy storage and then expanding when needed.
The cables, from companies such as ZipLinq and Seidio, include phone-modem, Ethernet, USB, FireWire and audio connectors.
The most useful of the collection has a USB plug on one end, and a connector to my Treo 650 smartphone on the other: I can charge and synchronise the phone by plugging it into the computer. More and more portable devices can be charged via USB hookups.
Speaking of power, another useful item is a power supply for my computer that plugs into wall sockets and airplane-seat power outlets alike, not to mention as cars. One power brick is all I care to haul around.
I would not want to be without my 80 gigabyte portable disk drive. My work depends on my data – backing it up regularly is just common sense. But I would hate to lose my photos or videos, another reason to practice safety.
The need for backup is not just recovering from disk crashes, but also the possibility of theft. Data I don’t want falling into random hands requires encryption. Travellers, especially business travellers carrying around corporate or government information, need to encrypt it.
Some people travel with “thumb drives” – flash memory that plugs into the USB port of a computer. This is useful for transferring large files, say of presentations, and simple backups. My solution? My Treo has a 2 gigabyte Secure Digital flash memory card, which I plug into a USB adapter when necessary.
That amount of SD storage, as I noted in this space a few weeks ago, allows me to keep a good supply of MP3 music on the Treo, thereby allowing me to leave my once-indispensable iPod at home.
A Palm software package called Pocket Tunes lets me organise and play back the music whenever I wish.
The Treo takes respectable snapshots and even modest videos. But it is no match for my Casio Exilim digital camera, which despite its relatively tiny size boasts 7.2 megapixel definition, a gorgeous LCD screen, good videos and much more.
As a happy user of the Skype internet-phone service, I need better quality than the echo-ridden microphone and speakers in my computer. For this I use a USB headset and microphone system from Plantronics, and get extraordinary quality when I’m on a decent broadband connection.
The one piece in my ensemble that remains fairly heavy is my computer. In fact, my Apple Powerbook, at about 5.5 lbs, is barely less heavy than an early portable model from Toshiba that I owned 15 years ago. It is a wee bit more capable, of course.
Before I returned to the Macintosh fold, I carried an IBM ThinkPad, which was (and is still) the class of the Windows marketplace. One reason was service: IBM’s global presence was reassuring, and on more than one occasion it saved me from serious inconvenience.
Apple’s service has been solid as well, but I haven’t encountered an on-the-road emergency yet.
My point here is that for the items that matter most, the initial price may not be what counts the most.
Next to my computer, the bulkiest gear I carry may be the most essential, at least on long plane rides: my Bose QuietComfort 2 audio headphones. The “noise-cancelling” feature of these headphones creates a zone of peace amid the gut-rumbling din of today’s jets.
Other companies sell noise-cancelling headsets, to be sure. Sennheiser makes good ones, and they’re much more portable. Meanwhile, other companies such as Shure and Etymotic make well-regarded audio plugs that go into the ear canal. But I’m addicted to the Bose headset.
Until something better comes along, that is – and that brings up the creed, much beloved in the tech industry, of gadget-hound road warriors.
We are always, always on the lookout for the next best thing.
Dan Gillmor is founder of Grassroots Media Inc in San Francisco. His website is bayosphere.com